Buddhism 101 explains how happiness and suffering are states of mind, and how external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. Even if we are in the most blissful surroundings and have everything we need — the one time we might reasonably expect to be deliriously happy — we’re still not if any agitation is arising in our mind for any reason.
Let’s say you’re having a particularly amazing experience. It’s your birthday party, your devoted friends have been planning it for months, and it is taking place on an exotic island. Every single one of your best friends since early childhood has been invited and can be there; it’s a miracle! The food is incredible and none of it has any calories. Wafting scented breezes, lapping waves, soft lighting, your favorite music, the perfect temperature…. It’s paradise, isn’t it? What’s the problem? There isn’t one!
But then one of your childhood friends says something a bit off color, like “You’ve put on weight!” or “So you haven’t done much with your life, then…” And you immediately think, “That was cruel!” and maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but it’s a little dagger in your heart. It could be anything, and it doesn’t have to be much. All that has to happen is for you to get a bit upset, a little irritated, and the happiness starts to seep out of the whole event.
“I wish I hadn’t invited you!” you think to yourself. This is followed by a spontaneous recall of all the mean things they’ve ever said to you, and suddenly you can’t let it go. All the magic and fun of the party has been sucked out, it’s gone. Your experience has changed because now you’re in a bad mood. Now you’re having an ordinary, boring day, just as if you were chained back at your desk.
You can run, but you can’t hide
As they say, you can run but you can’t hide. We’ve taken our same old states of mind to this paradise, so our happiness can be destroyed in a moment, just as the tranquility of an ocean can be destroyed by a sudden storm. As my teacher puts it:
Even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6
I bet all of us can think of examples like this – we were having the time of our life and then it just collapsed.
We can see from this that if we want true, lasting happiness we need to develop and maintain a special experience of inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6
We need to find a way to keep a happy mind regardless of what happens because s*** happens. Even today I’ll wager that a bunch of annoying things have already happened? And that some of the things that you wanted to happen didn’t happen?
Did you have a problem today?
A long time ago I was doing a Post Graduate Certificate in Education in York, UK. Soon after we arrived, we were all asked to sit in a large circle, and I was sitting to the right of the moderator. Starting from her left, she went round each person in turn, asking solicitously: “What problems are you having?”
Now, weirdly, when she started, I had no problems. I was feeling very happy. I had been meditating for a few years already, so I also knew that problems were not as fixed as they had once appeared. But as she worked her way around the group, and everyone came up with their dreadful and seemingly intractable problems, I did start to feel nervous. “What the heck am I going to say when she asks me?!” I now had a problem, albeit a small one. I cast around wildly in my memories for something that had gone wrong that week, and think I gamely came up with something in the nick of time.
I found it quite interesting that every single one of these cool young people, however together and sorted they looked on the outside, had a major problem. It is something I remember when I have problems in order to gain perspective — I am by no means alone. I have tried out the same market research quite often since then in a shortened form, and by all means try it yourself if you like. If you ask a group of friends, “Did you have a problem today?”, I bet 99% will say yes (and then look at each other in surprised recognition).
Things are always going to go wrong, one way or another, so if this throws us off balance we’re going to be unhappy — a lot. Therefore, we’ve got to find a way to be peaceful and positive no matter what’s going on.
Baby steps to nirvana
As Geshe Kelsang says:
The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7
Nirvana (a Sanskrit word) means liberation, permanent inner peace, or true mental freedom. But nirvana is not some pie in the sky thing. The way all the so-called Foe Destroyers (who have destroyed the inner foes of their delusions) and enlightened beings have come to experience this forever inner peace is through developing moments of inner peace and learning to connect them.
For example, every once in a while we feel a state of deep well-being, a feeling of peace or connection—life is good! This usually lasts between a few seconds and half an hour ~ it doesn’t last that long, does it? But at these points we really get a glimpse of what our life could be about. Why don’t we just stay here, seeing as we like it so much? It’s because some negative thought interrupts as we’re not in control of our mind.
Buddha’s point is that those moments we get of joy, peace, and contentment, even bliss, are a manifestation of our own Buddha nature, our boundless potential for lasting peace, universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, endless joy and flexibility, incredible goodness. Buddha called it Buddha nature because we all, without exception, have the potential not just for liberation but to be a Buddha, a fully awakened person who has all good qualities to perfection.
So how do we get there? Baby steps. We gradually train our mind so we can find and hold the positive, peaceful feelings, like love for others, for longer and longer periods of time, always identifying with them and giving ourselves permission to stay there. We gradually clear our minds of all obstructive, destructive thoughts that interrupt, letting the clouds disperse from the sky. We can do all this because we have the potential and we have the methods. And as soon as we’ve attained the true and lasting mental freedom of liberation we’ll be happy throughout our life, and in any future life.
Happiness now, happiness later
In Buddhism, we talk about how our mind and our body are different natures. Our body is like a guest house for our mind. There is no use pretending that this body is anything other than a piece of meat with a rapidly approaching expiration date. But we are not our body; we are so much more than our body. Our mind has limitless potential.
At the point when the body dies, our mind does not die because it is a formless continuum of awareness that never stops. Our gross waking minds do stop — they dissolve into our subtle mind, and this dissolves into our very subtle mind that travels onto our next life. Buddha’s understanding of life after life comes from the direct experience that mind is formless. Happiness will always depend upon the positive qualities in the formless continuum of our mind and not on externals, and that is not going to change. Wherever you go, there you are. Therefore, if we want to be peaceful and happy in this life and in any future lives, we need to develop and maintain these qualities as a matter of priority.
Over to you: do you agree that to be happy we need to train our minds? Or can we find lasting happiness in other ways?